“How can you support homosexual relationships given everything in the Bible that condemns them”?
I get some variation of this question a lot (someone just emailed it to me earlier this week), though I am sure not as often as LGBTQ students do. It is not a particularly difficult question for me to answer, but I have come to realize it is the wrong question to ask.
Psychologists long ago recognized that the question “What causes homosexuality?” is biased. The way we frame a question goes a long way towards determining the kinds of answers we might find, and that question is based on the presumption that there is something wrong with homosexuality that particularly needs explanation. Today psychologists are more likely to ask something like “What are the causes of sexual orientation?”
There is a similar loaded bias in questions that presume that homosexuality is condemned as sin in the Bible, and I have started to refuse to respond to those kinds of questions. Instead I re-frame them something like this: “It sounds like you are wondering what the Bible has to say about homosexual relationships – I am interested in that too, and would be happy to explore it with you”. I might also say something like “It sounds like you have decided that the Bible condemns homosexuality – that is interesting; I am very interested in understanding better why you came to that conclusion”.
There was a conference recently at that National City Christian Church in Washington for a meeting of Mathew Vines The Reformation Project that was based on the view that “there is a path to both affirming the full authority of the Bible and affirming same-sex relationships.” (see: http://www.voanews.com/content/gay-evangelicals-argue-bible-does-not-condemn-homosexuality/2528829.html). I have my own views on this subject, as does the the Seventh Day Adventist Church (see: http://www.adventist.org/information/official-statements/statements/article/go/0/homosexuality/). But here my point is not so much that I know that I am right, or that the Reformation Project is right, or that the Adventist Church is wrong, but that, from a Biblical perspective, it is simply incorrect to assume a priori that one of these views is the best starting point. I notice it has become fashionable recently for conservative Christians to try to pretend that the Bible’s negative position on homosexuality is clear and obvious, and anyone who disagrees is engaging in fancy spin. That is a con, and Christian LGBTQ and allies have been falling for it for too long.
Of course the title of this piece is not literally true – or more precisely, is only literally true. LGBTQ people are people, and the Bible has plenty to say about people, how to value them, how to treat them properly and respectfully. But the Bible has precisely nothing to say about “homosexuality”; the word does not appear anywhere in the Old or New Testaments, and there is no word for it in either Biblical Hebrew or Greek. Indeed, the word “homosexual” was not coined at all until the 19th century (for that matter, the word “heterosexual: was not coined until the same time). Nowhere does the Bible contain a verse that says that homosexuality or homosexual relationships are sinful. The idea that individuals should or could decide for themselves who they would spend their lives with, or that this decision should or could be based on that individual’s own pattern of desires and attractions, is a very modern one, and almost non-existent in the ancient world in which the Bible was written.
It was not until it became accepted that individuals had the opportunity and right to choose their own life partners that it made any sense to even think in terms of a “heterosexual” or “homosexual” identity or orientation. Before that, most people were paired in marriage with someone other than the person they were most emotionally, intellectually and sexually attracted to. A gay man in the ancient world who married the daughter of some influential man to further a strategic alliance with his own father was essentially in the same predicament as a straight man who married the daughter of a similar man for a similar reason. But once men started assuming they could marry whoever they were most attracted to, it gradually become clear that it was unfair to deny the same right to some men just because they were attracted to men rather than women (as with most things, it took a bit longer to realize that the same dynamics applied to women).
The point of all of this is that we are all in the same boat when it comes to trying to figure out what the Bible has to say about homosexual relationships. The Bible does not directly reference homosexuality, it does not use the words homosexual or contemplate anything like what we mean by homosexual, and it certainly does not label homosexuality a sin. So we all have to draw inferences about what we think the Bible would say about loving, respectful and committed homosexual relationships. So-called conservative Christians who make global and absolutistic claims that homosexuality is a sin are making inferences every bit as much as liberals who claim that loving and committed homosexual relationships are consistent with Biblical sexual ethics. This is the context in which any legitimate conversation about the Bible and homosexuality must take place.
Those who affirm the Christian dignity, joy and legitimacy of loving and committed LGBTQ relationships need not take a defensive or apologetic tone. They do not have to do any special pleading, or accept some kind of second-class status as members of the community of faith only through the special grace and forgiveness of tolerant Christians. Both those who believe LGBTQ relationships are valid, and those who believe they are invalid, start at exactly the same place – without any direct Biblical guidance (just as we have no direct Biblical guidance on the morality of kidney transplants).
Vigorous, prayerful, diligent, honest and collegial study and conversation on these matters is very much in order. Unless one is dogmatically pre-committed to the answer before asking the question, who knows where such conversation would lead? In my experience, such conversations rooted in the Bible and its core principles are always productive and life-enhancing, and I approach them without fear. I do though think we should no longer allow others to force us into pseudo-conversations that have the appearance of being about understanding the Bible, but in reality are attempts to mis-use the Bible as weapon to club those perceived as marginal or non-conforming into submission. I am unsure about a lot of things, but I am pretty sure that is not a legitimate use of the Bible.
The Bible has nothing to say about homosexuality, but it has a lot to say about how to treat marginalized and oppressed people – and LGBTQ people have long been marginalized and oppressed. In that sense the Bible has a lot to say about homosexuality – how ought we to treat the widow and the orphan, the stranger within our gates? I am confident that if we were to follow that core Biblical guidance, we would be in pretty good shape while we discuss other issues which apparently the Bible considers to be of much lesser importance.
Aubyn Fulton, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
Pacific Union College*
*Note: The views expressed here are those of Professor Fulton, and do not reflect the views of, nor were they approved by, Pacific Union College.